Archive for December, 2012

Mark_Twain002_bw_webOnce in an interview Mark Twain noted of humor, that “It is nature’s effort to harmonize conditions. The further the pendulum swings out over woe the further it is bound to swing back over mirth.”

The pendulum has been swinging far “out over woe” these past days, and like many of you I am anxious for a return to laughter – for a ray of light to break through the dark clouds settling over so much of our national life.  Last weekend in a speech delivered at a memorial service for the victims at Newtown, our president relayed a story from that terrible day.  Reminding the gathering of the hope buried in the midst of their pain he described for them

“the scenes of the schoolchildren, helping one another, holding each other, dutifully following instructions in the way that young children sometimes do; one child even trying to encourage a grown-up by saying, ‘I know karate. So it’s okay. I’ll lead the way out.’”

Did you catch that?  Two jokes in one sentence – “the way that young children sometimes do….’I know karate’” – jokes! And people laughed.  Not just chuckles, but, honest to goodness laughs.  There, in the midst of such terrible darkness and sadness and pain, there was light, and it came in the form of humor.

I know this hardly makes me a revolutionary or a genius, but I’ve long contended that humor is one of God’s greatest gifts to us.  It isn’t just an anesthetic from the suffering of life or a protective wall behind which we can hide, it is the very road to understanding and reframing life’s setbacks and pain. I’m sure that is part of why the Bible is riddled with humor and jokes.

Humor tells the truth.  It is true that young kids do, every once in a while, follow instructions.  A child’s bravado in the face of terrifying circumstances does bring a smile.  These stories remind us that these kids were more than victims – they were kids – honest, and foolish, and brave.  And, like kids should, they make us smile and free us to laugh.  They are funny.

I know the darkness is not past.  I know that we cannot shirk the serious and difficult conversations ahead.  I know that in many cases, humor is but a momentary reprieve – a breath of honesty in an often-dishonest world.

But, just as those shepherds and wise men stared into a feeding trough and realized that the peasant child lying there, vulnerable and fragile, must have felt laughter welling up inside them.  Just as they came to understand that this vulnerable and humble creature was the one of whom prophesies spoke – this was God come to be with us, full of grace and truth.  My hope is that we, who face the humble and humbling realities of this present day, are able, at the end, to laugh – not the cynical laughter of the hopeless but of ones who have seen the truth and been set free.

See you in church!


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Traveling with my parents and brother “up north” to our annual week at a rental cabin, I loved to look at the map and estimate how soon we would get there.

Some of the names of the smaller towns on the map intrigued me: Badger, Hokah, Good Thunder, Boy River, Fertile and even Motley. Often my dad had an atlas in the car and I was able to see the population of each town as of the last census.  Small….very small. How did they even have enough people to live?

As a sophisticated city sicker of age ten or so, I had formed strict impressions of small towns like those “up north.”  They had stores I had never heard of like “Ben Franklin.” (Actually, this store was a delight to my brother and me, selling everything from shoes to parakeets to yard goods and rick-rack to sturdy underwear to pots and pans.)

The grocery stores seemed like miniature versions of what I knew with many brands I hadn’t even heard of – like Dexo canned shortening (scary).  Eating lunch at the local diner, I marveled that anyone wore clothes like that any more – jackets with the names of bowling teams on the back, pastel sweatshirts seemingly for any occasion, tennis shoes that must have been purchased at the Ben Franklin.

And how did anyone live without a movie theater in town?  Or a record store, for heaven’s sake?

The dinky newspaper seemed to come out only once a week and my grade school newspaper editor’s eye glanced through it and laughed.  Even our mimeographed publication from Dodd School was better than that rag…

Of course, once we arrived at the cabin with its beautiful lake and gorgeous surroundings, all this was forgotten and I never wanted to leave.

As I traveled to Duluth last fall, the landscape seemed to boast an abundance of political signs and billboards that were not of my persuasion.  Pictures of aborted babies loomed over the highway; churches with names like “Living Water of Life Christian” or “The Holy Church of the True God” had their signs up.  Bumper stickers: “Darwin was wrong,” and “Prayer belongs in Schools” popped up on the rural roads.

Even though, intellectually, I knew it was wrong, many of my conclusions about the boondocks hadn’t changed much since the insufferable ten-year-old sneered her way down the streets of Little Falls, Minnesota.

While preparing the sermon for this week, I was surprised to learn that such stereotypes were common in First Century Palestine among the sophisticated Jews in Jerusalem.  Their objects of scorn?  The bumpkins up north in the province of Galilee, including the tiny town of Nazareth, the village where Jesus lived most of his life!

In Advent, Mary and Joseph make the long journey south to Bethlehem from “up north” in Nazareth..  One look at a map of the times shows why this must have been anything but easy, just like the journey through Advent to Christmas can be challenging for us as well, with all of the baggage we drag along – far more than could be carried by any donkey: bittersweet memories, huge expectations, excitement, the omnipresent comparisons of our life with that of others and what was or will be to what is now.

The poet David Whyte observed that whenever you take a journey, guides will appear.  We can find guides for our journey in our holy stories.

See you in church – for the next stage of the Advent journey, on the road, from up north, south to Bethlehem.  You’ll even receive a map.


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